Making decisions can be incredibly taxing for ADHD'ers and autistic folks. Even seemingly inconsequential decisions, such as deciding what to eat or what to wear, can steal away large amounts of our energy or send us spiraling into complete decision paralysis.
Decision paralysis, for neurodivergent folks, refers to a state where we are unable to decide between the multiple options available, regardless of how badly we want to make the decision or want the outcome of having made the decision. This can throw us into a big emotional reaction (mine is usually anger), inspire an impulsive response, or cause us to freeze up entirely and not decide at all. In any case, decision paralysis can take a ton of energy to deal with and can reduce our ability to make other decisions later in the day. So, let’s talk about a few ways to avoid this decision purgatory.
1) Decide ahead of time
Have you noticed that it's easier to give other people advice than to give yourself advice, or that it's easier to decide for other people than for yourself? Well, what if you think about your future self as a different person and decide for them? This tactic is essentially just making a plan of what you’re going to decide before you’re even faced with the situation in which you need to choose. Avoiding making a decision in the heat of the moment reduces the pressure. Instead of feeling the ticking of the clock as all your friends look at you to decide on where you're all eating this time, you can focus on the decision at hand and process the information needed to make it at your own pace. More importantly, planning also means that you aren’t immediately locked into your choice; you can still change your mind if the information (or your mood) changes. Rather than truly making the decision, then, what this tactic does is set a default option. Having a default option removes the negative consequences of not coming to a decision in time. Instead of ending up stuck in an endless loop of indecision, you can just go for your default.
2) Lock in ‘safe’ options
This tactic of setting up a default option can be used on a larger, more permanent scale as well. Instead of picking a default option for this one decision, you can pick a default option for all future decisions of this type. For example, if you have a favourite restaurant, food, drink, or anything else (or even one that you know is a safe, reliable, or okay option), you can set this as your safe default. Then, the next time your friends can't figure out which restaurant they want to go to, you can pull out your safe choice and save the day. Another situation where this is particularly useful is with deciding on what to eat. Having a safe option in the house that you can default to can save you from going without dinner because you just can't come up with something you feel like making or feel like you'd enjoy. A warning, however; a lot of neurotypicals find the idea of safe options confusing or uncomfortable. They may make comments about how you always go to the same place or eat the same food. If you’re concerned about this, picking two or three safe options and shuffling through them can help.
3) Limit your options
The more options that you have, the more likely you are to end up stuck in decision paralysis purgatory. Even when there are tons of options available, focusing on deciding between an arbitrary subset of two or three of them can help substantially. This is easiest in the environments we control. For example, if you only own ten of the same black shirt, it will be much easier to decide what to wear in the morning! While this is an extreme implementation, just narrowing your options a little can make a big difference in the difficulty of the decision. Even in less controlled environments (like the toothpaste aisle), focusing on making a decision between three options is easier than the dozens that are available. Forgetting for a moment that dozens are available and simply deciding between the first three you see can help dramatically. And in the most extreme case, you can even…
4) Pick randomly
Seriously. While this isn’t the best option for most decisions, when you’re deciding something where the differences are small or the impact is time-limited, this tactic works great. This tactic fits well with my general affinity for a harm reduction approach in a lot of cases. For example, if you are struggling to decide what the best toothpaste is, well, any toothpaste is better than no toothpaste. So if it doesn't need to be perfect, then you can pick randomly! (…can you tell I really struggle with picking toothpaste, yet?)
5) Remember the big picture
Whenever you’re making a decision, it can feel like you are being locked into your decision forever. This is especially the case if you are arbitrarily limiting your options or selecting at random. Stepping back however, this isn’t usually the case. When you're deciding which cereal to have, you're not deciding forever, you're deciding for the next week. After that, you get to choose again, with more knowledge. This self-reflection can improve just about any of the tactics here, but it's especially useful when you involve elements of randomness. Importantly though: A lot of neurodivergent folks cannot rely on their memory alone for this process! Because many of us struggle with working memory, processing speed, and/or impulsivity, we need to write it down. Making a note about our thoughts on our last choice (in a way we can access those notes again in future) can aid the process of setting ‘safe’ options or let you hone your tastes over time.
6) Keep the decision time in mind
Where a lot of people meet decision paralysis is in the supermarket comparing prices and qualities of products. This is made all the worse by going through this process with one item after another after another. Being that we live in a capitalist world, it is important to remember that your time is worth money in this world. If you are stuck deciding between products based on price vs. quality, remember how much you are spending just by standing there.
If you’re debating over a particular decision for an hour, you may not actually be saving the money you first thought.
7) Ask for help
At the start of this piece I mentioned that sometimes it's easier to give advice to other people than to give it to ourselves and that sometimes it's easier to decide for other people than it is to decide for ourselves. Well, that's true for other people too. If you are having trouble deciding between the options available, asking a friend or loved one their opinion can help dramatically. Much like the 'safe' options tactic above, this tactic carries a warning, however. Some people feel uncomfortable deciding between options for other people and other's may find it weird or uncomfortable if they notice a pattern where you are always deciding based on their opinions or preferences. If this is something you're concerned about varying between this an other tactics above can help. Another tactic that can help avoid this awkwardness is to select based on your friend's suggestion as well as grabbing an different option at random. This can give you a chance to compare between a more limited set of options and defuse any tension around being seen as overly reliant on your friends.
While struggling to make decisions is part of life for many ADHD'ers and autistic folks, these tactics might make coming to a decision easier and less energy intensive. Considering the number of decisions we make on a daily basis, even a slight reduction in the energy required to make a decision can make a considerable difference in our overall energy levels. With managing energy levels being such a large part of coping with neurodivergent conditions, it's my hope that these tactics can help you cope better across multiple different areas of your life.
If there is a tactic here that revolutionizes your decision making abilities, or if you have a tactic that I didn't include in this list, I would love to hear about it below!